Are Biden and the Democrats finally turning on Israel over Gaza?

Biden’s new plan to build a pier on the Gaza coast seems to say yes. The continued military aid to Israel says otherwise.

US President Joe Biden with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv in October 2023.

“It’s not you, it’s me.” GPO/Handout/Anadolu/Getty Images Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

For years, there have been signs that the Democratic Party’s historic support for Israel might be wavering. Joe Biden’s staunch support for Israel after October 7 seemed to suggest that this theory was overblown — that when push came to shove, Democrats would always revert to the centrist pro-Israel position they had taken for decades.

But in the past few days, it’s started to feel like the winds might be shifting again.

Both in public and private, Biden and his deputies have fumed about Israel blocking aid from entering the Gaza Strip. Administration officials told reporter Barak Ravid that last week, when over 100 people were killed outside an aid convoy, was (in his words) a “turning point.”

Of course, the White House can complain all it wants (and has done so before): It’s meaningless unless accompanied by actions to push Israel toward changing course.

They started down that road earlier this year by imposing serious sanctions on violent Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Then during last night’s State of the Union, President Biden ordered the US military to establish a port in Gaza that would bypass Israeli-controlled land crossings and thus allow humanitarian aid to flow more freely into the Strip.

And it’s not just the administration — or even just the party’s clearly furious left flank.

A recent letter signed by 37 Congressional Democrats, including prominent and mainstream figures like Rep. Jamie Raskin (MD), argued that the planned Israeli assault on the overcrowded city of Rafah would likely violate international law. This, they argue, should trigger a cutoff of military aid to Israel — a threat that has yet to be proven credible, but one that knowledgeable observers take seriously.

It does seem like something is starting to change in the Democratic Party’s approach to the Gaza war, and maybe Israel more broadly.

But nothing is real until it actually happens, and there are still plenty of good reasons for skepticism.

A crisis between Democrats and Israel has been long in the making

The tension between Israel and the Democrats really started emerging in 2009.

That year, President Barack Obama pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze West Bank settlement construction as part of a push toward a peace agreement. Netanyahu dragged his feet and even outright thumbed his nose at the administration. During a 2010 visit from then-Vice President Biden, Israel announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units in contested East Jerusalem.

The conflict between Obama and Netanyahu only intensified after that, as Netanyahu began acting as if Israel’s future would be best secured by allying itself with the Republican Party specifically rather than the US writ large.

He all-but-openly campaigned against Obama in 2012, worked with Republicans to coordinate opposition to the Iran deal in Congress in 2015, and then hugged Trump as tightly as possible from 2016 onward.

From the outside, this strategy seems nuts: Why would you intentionally stoke conflict with one of the two major parties in your most important ally? The answer is that Netanyahu has — correctly! — identified fundamental ideological tension between Democrats and his right-wing vision for Israel.


Thanks for signing up!

Check your inbox for a welcome email.


Oops. Something went wrong. Please enter a valid email and try again.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Notice. You can opt out at any time. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. For more newsletters, check out our newsletters page. Subscribe

As a party that counts young people and racial minorities as key constituencies, Democrats were not likely (in the long run) to countenance indefinite Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. Netanyahu saw bolstering Republicans as the best way to protect American support without having to make concessions to Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s theory may have become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By aligning with Republicans, he turned both elite and rank-and-file Democrats against his government far more rapidly than they might have otherwise. After Netanyahu traveled to Washington to give a speech to Congress opposing the Iran deal in 2015, his approval rating among Democrats fell from 32 percent to 17 percent.

The divergence between Democrats and Israel has been on increasingly sharp display during the Gaza war. Biden’s “unconditional” support for Israel after October 7 has given way to open feuding about the postwar plan for Gaza. The US has called for Palestinian Authority rule over the Strip and a two-state solution; Netanyahu has unveiled a pseudo-plan that basically amounts to indefinite Israeli occupation.

This is hardly the only example. In a column titled “The US finally realized: Netanyahu broke an unbreakable alliance,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas lists off points of conflict between the allies — which, he concludes, are producing a fundamental rethink on the American side.

“Once the United States became convinced that Netanyahu was not being cooperative, not being a considerate ally, behaving like a crude ingrate and has been focused only on his political survival after the October 7 debacle, the time was ripe to try a new political course,” he writes.

But is anything really changing?

By all accounts, President Biden still holds a relatively old-school Democratic view of Israel — one that’s deeply sympathetic to the country and its security interests.

As frustrated as he may be with Netanyahu’s brutish policies and rank partisanship, it’s far from obvious that he is willing to start putting real pressure on Israel.

Most of Biden’s actual policies have involved giving Israel what it wants, like vetoing two UN resolutions calling for a ceasefire. Perhaps most importantly, the US has made over 100 arms sales to Israel since the war began, many of which were structured in such a way that they could escape congressional and public oversight.

For this reason, hearing about the administration’s frustration with Israel can feel a bit like hearing about Republican frustration with Trump. They’re perfectly happy to complain to reporters in private so long as they don’t have to actually do anything about it.

Yet at the same time, events appear to be moving toward a breaking point. Biden’s personal views on Israel are crashing on the shoals of Israel’s terrible war policy and long-brewing tension within his own political coalition.

We may soon find out whether the long-predicted crisis in US-Israel relations is truly here — or once again delayed.

This story appeared originally in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *